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How You Can Triumph in the Race of Life

‘No compromise”. That was UK Sport’s mantra in the lead up to the London Olympics. High performance sport is characterised by its commitment to world-class excellence. “Good enough” is not good enough. Only the highest levels of performance will do. In my own extensive work with UK Sport and other sporting bodies and individuals, I have been struck by the fine margins between success and failure.

A milli-second, or a micro-millimetre, can make all the difference – to selection, to qualification, to a medal-winning performance.

One only needs to look at Scotland’s Rugby World Cup loss to Australia to find a recent example of how near and yet how far. And of our willingness to vilify the match official when, wrong though his decision to award a penalty may have been, the primary cause was a rather poor line-out immediately before. In high performance work anywhere, we need to take responsibility for our own errors, not blame others.

So, working hard at the margins can make all the difference between success and relative failure. Little things make a big difference, as gold-medal winning UK cyclists told us and demonstrated.

This is easy to say but, as other examples in sport show, not so easy to achieve when we are under pressure. “World class performance in all conditions” reads an advert for the latest Audi car.

That’s the key. How well can we perform when the pressure is really on? When the adrenalin is pumping and cortisol flows through our systems, invoked by the fight or flight (or freeze) responses triggered in that part of the primitive brain known as the amygdala, how do we react?

This is where self-discipline, control and courage all need to kick in. Literally, in the case of a Dan Carter or a Greig Laidlaw. What are they doing in the lead-up to a place kick? Watch them.

Precious moments taken to pause, compose, focus. Without that pause, it only takes a moment to take the eye off the ball, literally and metaphorically, just as, for others, it only takes a moment...to let the wrong word slip out, to make an angry retort, to hit the send button on an email. In such moments, we shape our futures.

This is about successful last-minute defence of the goal line, thoughtful response in a difficult negotiation, pause for reflection before responding to our partners in an angry exchange. Daniel Kahneman’s systems one and two (see Thinking, Fast and Slow) remind us that conscious thought is very limited. It is said that the vast majority of our thinking and acting is unconscious. That’s helpful, if we are a finely-honed athlete, trained to such an extent that we will always throw the ball accurately at a line out under pressure or score with the last kick in a penalty shoot-out, but few of us are so finely honed in our professional Iives.

Under pressure, we can react too quickly and awkwardly. Most of us need to work hard to pause before speaking or acting. It only takes a moment or two to take stock, choose our words carefully, think about the others’ perspective, challenge our assumptions, and ask ourselves whether our initial reaction will really help.

I experienced this recently in a mediation when, after a long day, a senior lawyer snapped and vented his frustrations. As his reaction was inconsistent with my own just-aired proposals, I barked back: “And what do you suggest we do then?” Fortunately, we realised what was happening and turned a heated exchange into a moment of laughter.

The All Blacks are a model in many ways. For them too, the margins are everything. “Champions do extra” they say. They accompany this by modesty. The philosophy of “sweeping the sheds”, where even the most senior players tidy up afterwards, points to personal humility at the heart of success. The concept of “blue head” as an antidote to choking, losing focus and panicking under pressure (“red head”) gives them triggers to combat stress and perform at their best when it really matters, as when kicking that last-minute penalty.

UK Sport has said it will “soften” its approach to “no compromise” after the Rio Olympics. It will be interesting to see where that leads. For many of us, however, following the sporting examples and aspiring to high performance seems an appropriate challenge.

 

By John Sturrock, Mediate.com
December, 2015

TESTIMONIALS

Thorburn Holdings (Pty)Ltd
"We would like to thank and congratulate everybody from the Mediation Centre involved with the conflict management training of our administrative staff on the 26rd March 2013 on a job well done. Everyone was impressed by the efficiency, knowledge and the manner in which they were equipped with the necessary tools to handle potential conflict resolutions in the future.
 
Our return on our investment can be seen in the increased productivity, teamness and positive atmosphere in the workplace. There is an excitement amongst them in anticipation of the follow-up training scheduled for mid June."

Connie Theron, Practising Attorney - UCT Law Clinic
“While working at the University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic and later at the UCT Law Clinic, I found the pro bono mediation services of Sandra Hitchcock and Gerrie van der Watt of the Mediation Centre to be highly professional and extremely effective in our divorce matters. It is fantastic that our clients, with little or no financial means, can benefit from such an excellent programme.

The mediators are able to provide a non-threatening environment in which the clients are able to talk openly about issues that matter most to them, but which the Court in a divorce matter may choose not to entertain. Through the mediation sessions, the clients are able to reach an agreement together which ultimately they are both happy with. In cases where mediation did not yield the result of a settlement, the process was still extremely valuable, giving the parties better perspective and highlighting the key issues in dispute.”